Zidane’s Real Madrid serve up reality check to doubters in Cardiff

Zidane’s Real Madrid serve up reality check to doubters in Cardiff

For those considering why Juventus were beaten in the Cardiff Champions League Final, they should look back no further than the skewed build up to the game and a palpable gulf in class between the sides’ starting XI’s and their respective benches.

© Real Madrid

To my mind, the underdogs lost last night in part, because they were overhyped not least by Sky Sports pundits Charlie Nicholas, Phil Thompson and Matt Le Tissier.

Football is a game of opinions, of course, but I read a lot of these answers with a growing sense of bewilderment prior to the game and they don’t look any better now.

Juve simply aren’t on the same level as Real Madrid or Barcelona – and that is regardless of the Italians knocking out Luis Enrique’s men en route to the Final.

That result, specifically, built up a level of expectation that obscured the reality that this Juventus side had already peaked and will likely need major surgery within their back four to go again next season at the same level.

However, the final itself was anything but an anti-climax.

The reality is that Madrid are capable of playing more than one way. Flexible enough to adapt their shape, personnel or approach in-play to create a winning solution. And this is a testament to a superb manager in Zinedine Zidane. He is a breath of fresh air after the era of doctrinaire ‘philosophy management’ – football refracted through the prism of corporate consultancy.

It is great to see a return to first principles – football first principles. And as a result, Zidane is doing really important work by effectively cleansing the palette’ of football after a decade of bullshit and more.

Football-wise Real Madrid, Zidane’s Real Madrid are confronting the uncritically revered investments in intrusive big data and vulgar technical interventions. In saying next to nothing his silence speaks eloquently when set against the current vogue for personal branding, coaching double-speak, shallow philosophies and personal statements.

At this point I think Real Madrid are a football model for other aspirant big clubs in terms of style of play, game management, team spirit and winning mentality. And all this is done with an eye on sensible squad rotation and football common-sense.

By all means, say what you want about the institution of Real Madrid and its fans and its history but from a pure football standpoint there is so much to like.

Watching Barcelona this season has felt like watching a supporting cast clutching at the coat-tails of their big three stars Messi, Suarez and Neymar.

This Real Madrid side are a serious team, a serious squad with real depth. They are definitely not a backing band for Ronaldo.

The reality is that their opponents Juventus peaked by beating Barcelona before that Monaco first leg tie. And they have been on the downgrade ever since. Ever so slightly, but enough to make a difference.

The Juve players’ legs and heads went in the Final, a cumulation of stress, age, tired legs and mental fatigue. What has been a great back four or five for the Italians has now had its time and probably needs at least two new additions.

Juve’s defeat of Barca over two legs was their high point as a side. It was almost certainly the last hurrah for a Juve defence marshalled by the great Bonucci, Chiellini and Buffon.

But their time is clearly coming to an end at this rarefied level. And when old defences fail they tend to do so spectacularly quickly.

Remember for example, when Chelsea folded under Mourinho the season after winning the Premier League? It is a common phenomenon and explains why mature teams that are even just beyond their peak struggle to defend their titles the following season. And this is no more so than in the Champions League.

I actually think that Juve side ‘died’ more than a little against Real Madrid. My hunch is they’ll need more brutal surgery than people will automatically assume and there may be psychological damage too. Dybala, Sandro and Pjanic in particular left the field with more negatives than positives to answer.

Once Real Madrid went ahead for the second time the contest was done. But paradoxically that was also very good for the spectacle of the game as it showcased Real’s pace on the break. That amazing quality in transitions was an overlooked facet of the first half where Juve more than held their own.

Nonetheless, Real were no more dangerous than in the few seconds that followed their winning back possession on the edge of their own 18 yard box. Led by the drilled slick passing, and switching of play of Modric and Kroos in particular, and supported by the tireless Marcelo, this is one of the great sights of current days football – a real Real Madrid signature.

The parallels with the Europa League Final between Ajax and Man United were also instructive. In both games the winners were significantly ahead of their opponents. Men v boys in Stockholm and a box office Madrid overcoming a post-peak Juventus in Cardiff.

In both cases, the losing managers (Bosz and Allegri) will harbour the sense of frustration that they did not give off their best on their big stage.

Ajax were polite, robotic and bereft of personality, individual class and bravery.

Juventus simply ran out of legs and mental strength.

Tactically, the attempt to curtail Marcelo created gaps elsewhere as Barzagli was tasked with covering in behind Alves (a player who is better going forwards than defending), and Modric and Kroos and Isco exploited them, to Ronaldo’s benefit in particular. This is no disgrace though. Marcelo, Modric and the greatly improved Kroos have been the architects of a switch in power from Barcelona to Madrid in the last 12 calendar months or so.

As it turned out there was quite a gulf between the teams in the end up. Goals change games but the signs were ominous from the opening moments of the second half as twice the weaknesses down Juve’s right were exposed to balls in behind.

You could see the balance changing, with each passing second half minute. It was evidenced in the body language of the Italians and the way the third and fourth goals were scored without challenge. Ditto Cuarado’s red card. You can argue about its merits but his ill discipline gave the ref an easy decision to make. Were I a teammate of the Colombian I’d be absolutely raging. Ramos milked it yes, but Cuadrado is an international player who sold his colleagues short on the biggest stage in football.

Juventus have now lost a Champions League final seven times. That is more than any other side and that would also be consistent with their status as a side that are very good but typically missing that X Factor of true champions. It was imperative that Juventus scored first or held a lead in the game to give them something to defend. That’s why they started so fast (surprise element) and also why they coudn’t cope when Real Madrid went 2-1 up. Against serious teams Juve lack the quality to go toe to toe and this was clearly evident after their surprisingly fast start was repelled by Real Madrid.

Thereafter Real Madrid always looked that they had another gear to go to if they’d needed it. But they never did and they saw this one out with more than a bit to spare.

There’s a lot of nonsense talked about shape, and systems and tactics in football and specifically so amongst fans and journalists. The reality is that the best players are the most consistent players and their teams are the teams with the fewest weak links and the greatest collective star quality. This is no more the case than with Zinedine Zidane’s current Real Madrid, the first side to successfully defend a Champions League title.